Volunteer Chinese teacher bicycles 16,000 kilometers back home

By Global Times - Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/30 22:15:39

Yuan Jianglei takes a rest in the desert of Mauritania in January 2017.

For Yuan Jianglei, two years as a volunteer teaching Chinese in Benin's Confucius Institute wasn't enough time for him to explore Africa.

In September 2016, Yuan embarked on a cycling journey from Benin to China. After 360 days, over 8 million pedal strokes and 16,000 kilometers, and after passing through 16 countries, he arrived in Xinjiang, China.

The journey not only fulfilled Yuan's personal dream to do a cycling tour involving Africa, but also earned him enough money to help a village in Benin to drill a well and install a solar power station.

Yuan poses with local kids in a village in Togo in September 2016. Photos: Courtesy of Yuan Jianglei

Into Africa

After graduating from Chongqing Jiaotong University in 2014, Yuan applied to become a teacher at the Confucius Institute in the University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin, in West Africa.

During his two years in Benin, Yuan travelled to almost every region in Benin, and found that the lack of access to water and electricity has been a main cause of poverty in the country.

According to the United Nations Development Program, as of 2014, only about 68.1 percent of people in Benin had access to potable water. In rural areas, the lack of safe water has resulted in diseases like diarrhea and cholera among children.

During a trip to visit his friend who lives in Nipouni, a village in Northern Benin, he met villagers who had to trek over 3 kilometers each day to fetch water. Compared with water, electricity is even more luxurious. The closest solar power station was 23 kilometers away in a neighboring village. Yuan wanted to do something.

Without financial resources himself, he started to contact local companies to make a bet with him - if he could successfully cycle back to China from Africa, the company would make a donation to the village to help the locals build a well and a solar power station.

In the beginning, no company answered Yuan's request. "They probably thought this young man would die on the way," he joked to the China Youth Daily.

A hiking and cycling enthusiast, he decided to embark on the journey anyway. Before setting off, he spent almost a year making a detailed plan, including which countries he would visit, the visa requirements for each country, a budget and which daily necessities to take along with him.

With a camera, a bike, over 30 kilograms of luggage on the back of his bike and several thousand dollars in savings, Yuan hit the road.

When he was in Togo, he got a call from a Chinese company which exported motorcycles to Africa and was interested in his charity project. Yuan told the boss of the company that he didn't have to donate a lot, just one dollar for every kilometer he travels. This would make enough money for drilling a well and building a solar power station for the village. The boss agreed.

"To be honest, charity wasn't the only reason I did the cycling tour. It was a natural thing that occurred on my trip," he told the Global Times.

Help from friends

During the trip, apart from sleeping in his own tent, he often lived in the homes of villagers or travel buddies. Yuan said his French with an African accent, which he attained during his two years in Benin, was a big help during his trip. "A lot of villagers in West Africa, after hearing my accent, would invite me to have dinner and sleep in their homes," he told Zhejiang Online.

The leg in Mauritania was the most challenging. During the 440 kilometer trip from Nouakchott, its capital, to the northwestern town Atar, it was so windy that he spent eight days on what could have been done in three days in clear weather. With few restaurants along the way, Yuan told the magazine Chinafrica that he would eat some biscuits every 50 to 100 kilometers, and the policemen on the way gave him free water.

In Burkina Faso, Yuan got malaria for the first time. "It was late at night and I slept in a straw shed. The next day, I suffered from vomiting and diarrhea and felt cold all over my body." He called his friend in the town and was sent to the hospital. After some simple treatment and a few hours' rest, he hit the road again.

Yuan returned to his hometown in Fenghua, Zhejiang Province, in September 2017. Today, he works in a company that does trading with Africa in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province.

In March, about six months after his journey ended, with the $16,000 donation from the Chinese company, Yuan went to Benin again to fulfill his promise. A well over 70 meters deep has already been drilled in Nipouni, and workers are building a solar power station equipped with eight panels, six storage batteries and 48 sockets. The station will be able to fulfill the electricity needs of five villages in the region.

Although his one-year cycling journey has ended, he's hoping his experience can allow more Chinese people to learn about Africa. In his spare time, he is making a 28-episode documentary based on his cycling trip in Africa."I shot over 800 gigabytes' video and over 300 gigabytes' photos on my way. There were just too many stories," he told Zhejiang Online.

"Is Africa wild? Is Africa poor? Is Africa happy? I wasn't sure. I choose to hit the road myself to feel Africa with my own eyes and my heart," he said in a trailer of his documentary.

Global Times - Agencies
Newspaper headline: Journey to the East

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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